Friday, October 20, 2006

How To Read A Book

How To Read A Book:

(This is an outline of part of Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s excellent book, "How To Read A Book." The outline takes one up to the third level of reading - analytical reading. There is a fourth level, syntopical reading, but most of the T-blog readers, and your every day reader, does not read syntopically. Furthermore, mastering levels 1-3 will improve what you get out of your reading 10 fold. It is sufficient to make you a very proficient reader. Also, syntopical reading is for many books, analytical reading is for one book. So, technically, the title of this post implies an an analytic outline. A syntopical outline would be titled, “How To Read Books.” For these reasons I have only focused on levels 1-3. I hope the below outline will provide you with some practical knowledge of how to read well, not necessarily be well read. Also, as a companion to the below, readers are encouragned to read this short article. I also would obviously recommend purchasing Adler and Van Doren's book, "How To Read A Book," for your own library.)

I. Be a demanding reader. Reading, if you’re going to learn anything or gain enlightenment, must be active. The more active the reader is, the better.

A. You can be active by paying attention and focusing.

B. By taking notes, highlighting key points and arguments, asking questions of the author, etc.

C. Following rules for reading and making the following of these rules habitual.

D. The demanding reader should be asking these 4 questions of the book:

1. What is the book about as a whole? This should be stated succinctly.

2. What is being said in detail and how? You should know the main assertions and arguments which constitute the author’s message

3. Is the book true in whole or in part? Once you have understood the book you are obligated to make a judgment regarding it. Make up your own mind.

4. What of it? (4) is asking things like:

(a) How should I then live in light of what I’ve learned?

(b) What should I do with this knowledge?

II. The first level of reading is the reading at the basic, or elementary school, level.

III. The second level of reading is called “inspectional reading.” This comes in two parts:

A. Systematic skimming or pre-reading.

1. This is achieved by: reading the title, table of contents, preface, editors note, introduction, back flap, etc.

2. Reading the index to see the major themes, topics, ideas, and terms the author will be discussing.

3. Reading through the book by reading the first couple of pages or so, the last couple of pages or so, and then flipping through the book, dipping in here and there.

B. Superficial reading is the second part of inspectional reading. To achieve this you must read through the entire book at a fast pace and without stopping to think about terms you’re unfamiliar with, ideas you don’t immediately grasp, and points which are footnoted for further inspection. Doing both (A) and (B) will prepare you to read the book through for the second time; the analytical stage.

IV. The third stage of reading is called “analytical reading.” There are three stages, made up of various rules, of analytical reading.

A. Stage one: Rules for finding out what the book is about.

1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. This is also referred to as pigeonholing a book.

(a) Is it a poem, play, epic, work of philosophy or theology, history, science, etc.

(b) Is it theoretical or practical.

(i) A theoretical book reports facts, offers detached arguments, or offers insight or understanding of a position. These books teach you that something is the case.

(ii) A practical book tells you how to live, or how to do something. These books teach you how to do something.

(iii) As an aside, these two cannot be sharply separated. As John Frame points out in The Doctrine of God, facts and application of the facts go hand in hand. When I learn the 6th commandment I know how to apply it. But as I apply it to more diverse areas of life, I learn more about the 6th commandment.

2. Succinctly state what the book is about. That is, find the main theme or point of the book. You should be able to state this in a sentence, paragraph at most. This is different than (IV.A.1) in that here we are asking what the book is about, not what kind of book it is.

3. Outline the book. See this outline for an instantiation of this rule. Basically, you want to get at the bones of the book. The basic structure. The construction of the major themes and arguments. How the book proceeds. The skeleton.

4. Define the problem(s) the author has tried to solve. To see the unity of a book you need to know why it has the unity it has (supposing it’s a good book and it has a unity!). To know why it has the unity it has you should know the authors main problem(s) he’s trying to answer; as well as subordinate questions and answers.

B. Stage two: Rules for interpreting the book’s content.

5. Coming to terms with the author.

(a) A term is not a word. A term is the meaning of a word. Water and agua are two different words, they mean the same thing though.

(b) To know the authors terms, then, is to understand the meaning of his argument or explanation, etc.

(c) Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author.

(d) The words he uses in an important way, or the ones you have trouble understanding, are probably the important terms you need to know.

(e) Read all the words in context to find the meaning of the terms; how the author means them, that is.

6. Grasp the leading propositions by finding the key sentences.

(a) Propositions are the meanings of sentences.

(b) You find the leading propositions by finding the key sentences.

(c) You find the key sentences myriad ways:

(i) The author marks them out for you in some way.

(ii) These are the sentences that give you the most trouble.

(iii) The sentences express judgments, I.e., they are not questions or exclamations!

(iv) These are his reasons for affirming or denying the main problem(s) he has set out to answer.

7. Find the author’s argument by finding them in the key sequences of sentences.

(a) Sting together the important propositions into an ordered structure.

(b) An argument must involve more than one statement.

(c) An argument might be an inductive or deductive one.

(d) Observe what the author says he must prove and what he must assume.

8. Find which problem(s) the author solved and which one’s he did not. If he did not, find out if he knows that he did not.

(a) Did the author solve the problem(s) he set out to solve?

(b) Did he raise new ones in the process?

(c) Did the author admit or know that he failed to solve some of the problem(s)?

(d) If you know the solutions to the problem/s you can be confident that you understand the book.

C. Stage three: Rules for criticizing a book as a communication of knowledge. You are required to criticize the book you read. You owe the author that. Criticize, or offering a judgment, does not necessarily mean that you disagree with the author. You can offer the judgment that you agree with him, you have learned something, and he has answered what he set out to. If you disagree, which is your right, be sure you have completed the above steps. You cannot critique that which you do not understand.

9. General maxims for intellectual etiquette.

(a) Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and interpretation of the book.

(b) Do not agree disputatiously or contentiously.

(c) Demonstrate you understand the difference between knowledge and mere opinion by giving reasons for your judgments (criticisms).

10. Special criteria for points of criticism.

(a) Show where the author is uninformed. This is where he lacks some piece of knowledge that is relevant to the problem(s) he was trying to solve.

(b) Show where the author is misinformed. This is when the author asserts what is not the case.

(c) Show where the author is illogical. Here the author’s reasoning is faulty. He has either made a non sequitur or was inconsistent.

(d) Show where the author’s analysis, argument, or solution to problem(s) is incomplete. This is to say the author did not solve all the problems he started out to solve or did not make good use of the material at his disposal, that he failed to take into account all the ramifications, or made distinctions relevant to his undertaking.

The above outline provides the rules and strategies required for reading well. Many folks are well read, not many read well. Thomas Hobbes once said, “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.”


  1. So much for my plan to read a book a week!

  2. The Red Rocker10/20/2006 5:49 AM

    Something should also be said for the fact that how we discern the content and worth of a book (and get things of value from a book or see things of lesser value, etc.) is not just limited to the connect-the-dots types of intellectual activity.

    Adler's book is OK (the list of great books he and his co-author added in the back is worth its weight in gold when one is first seeking out sources and lists for great literature [maybe I should say 'pre-internet', but actually even with the internet]), but Adler 'is' a little quirky in his deifying of intellect. He said in so many words in an interview that Mozart was [basically less than Adler] because Mozart hadn't read all the great books. That's a fair paraphrase.

    You compose Mozart's last six symphonies, Mortimer, showing the intellect, emotional refinement, taste, passion, talent, skill, and inspiration they show then talk...

  3. Please apply these principles to your favorite book...the one with the chatty plants, salty ladies, spooky angels with flaming swords, and big boats full of bugs.


  4. The Red Rocker10/20/2006 10:13 AM

    The chatty plant was God Himself; the salty lady is a mystery to me (and I'm actually glad not everything in the Bible is known to me), but it has something to do with not disobeying God and not turning back to the city of destruction once you've been given safe passage out... As for spooky angels, Satan and his fallen angels are indeed very spooky (but they are defeated, dangerous, yet defeated). The angels with flaming swords are supposed to to fear into you, fallen man. that's right, you can't get 'back to the Garden', no matter how many songs you write. And God can create bugs like He creates atheists. Atheists, though, need to pick it up some to be as useful as bugs are in their various jobs on this earth. Atheists need to develop their intellects some to just have some semblance of being a formidable influence in turning God's people towards the 'light.'

    Oh, by the way: now it is high time to awake out of sleep. Rom. 13:11

    Read the name you've chosen to write under.

  5. For as long as I have taught college philosophy classes, I begin each class with the fisrt few paragraphs from his chapter, "How to Read Philosophy."

  6. to kjv 1611 scoffer,
    Adler has a chapter in his book on how to read Canonical Books p293.

    he writes,
    "The faithful reader of a canonical book is obliged to make sense out of it and to find it true in one or another sense of "true." If he cannot he is obliged to go to someone who can... He essentially reads without freedom; but in return for this he gains a kind of satisfaction that is possibly never attained when reading other books."

    He also mentions that besides major theistic religions other groups have books they must read canonically (ie, w/o error) too, such as Marxists, Freudians, Dawkinsians, etc.

  7. Isnt_it_cute10/20/2006 1:32 PM

    Manata and Loftus, together at last!

    Who would have thunk it?

  8. Discomfiter,

    I appreciate your direction on how to read books.

    This will be INVALUABLE as I continue to grow in my apologetic tactics.

    Go Reformers!

  9. "Apologetic tactics"? Perhaps you meant apologetic method?


    Any word on their follow-up, "How to Read the U.S. Tax Code"? Now THAT would be impressive (and boring)



  10. Shining and Burning...

    You read me correctly, brother. I did mean 'tactic.' This is a war, brother! Its "winning time" as another So-Cal brother named Magic Johnson used to say.

    Brother Paul, I mean Discomfiter, and I are on the same team.

    The Winning Team.

  11. Paul, How do I read "How to Read a Book", if I do not know how to read a book?

  12. On a more serious note, thanks for information that a student like me can use rather than the latest refutations of unbelief.

  13. Vytautas,

    You're equivocating on "read." The kind of reading you're talking about is "elementary reading." This book presupposes that you can read at the elementary level.

  14. On a more serious note, you're welcome! :-)

  15. I must say I was a little disappointed with this post... All of it was common sense that I have been practicing for quite a while without reading a book about how to read a book.

  16. Paul I'm a fellow believer to start things off first. I would like to know how you gained so much knowledge on presuppositionalism, debate, phiosophy, and theology because I am very interressting in furthering my understanding in these areas and was wondering could you point me to some good areas to look at. Another off topic thing is I would like to know how you defend theonomy against critics who point out in the book of hebrews the removal of the old covenant. I would like to know this because my friend has been attacking theonomy for some time and I have not been able to defend it well enough. Please email me at With your response if you can thanks.

  17. Nathan Burbalinski10/23/2006 10:05 AM


    In order to defend Theonomy you would have to twist Scripture--that's why you are having trouble defending it. See your reference to Hebrews, you're trying to find a way to make it say something other than what it really says in order to defend your pet doctrines. Don't do it brother, embrace the plain teaching of the text and don't let your doctrinal presuppositions be the filter through which you interpret Scripture...

    God bless,

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  20. Regarding Stage Three ("You are required to criticize the book you read"), do you write down your criticisms (say, in the back of the book), or do you just ponder them in your mind (for an hour or so)?